This week saw the vegetable shortage in the UK cause chaos with evening meals and dinner plans going awry with the lack of broccoli, aubergine and (worst of all) courgettes being in short supply. To the rescue comes Kate Young, author of the brilliant Little Library Cookbook which is published later this year. Kate's recipes are delightful and original recipes, inspired by the author's favourite works of fiction. Here are two recipes from the book, for Spanakopita and Chicken casserole.
Desdemona went up and down the line, adding walnuts, butter, honey, spinach, cheese, adding more layers of dough, then more butter, before forging the assembled concoctions in the oven.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
I tried making filo once. After a frustrating afternoon with a broom handle, my pasta maker and more than a few tears, I am happy to report that you never need to. This pastry, assembled in layers around sweet and savoury fillings, needs to be paper-thin to crisp up properly in the oven. You’re not a machine – and neither am I – and so the good stuff from the supermarket will serve you much better. Pleasingly, shop-bought filo turns this pie from a full-day challenge into a mid-week supper or a simple weekend lunch.
The key here is the butter: be generous with it between each layer, as pallid, soft filo is such an unattractive prospect. And, most importantly, the spinach needs to be drained very well. Squeeze it, squelch it, press it, leave it to drain, and then do the same again. It really will make a world of difference.
In Middlesex, Desdemona lays her pastry out all over the house, but she is cooking in the 1920s, long before the Greek pastry she grew up with was readily available in American supermarkets. When using shop-bought, keep it covered for as much time as possible. Laying supermarket filo all over your sitting room will cause it to dry out faster than you can fill it, and it will end up all over your carpet, rather than around your spinach.
1tbsp flavourless oil
1 onion, finely diced
1kg/2¼lb frozen spinach
1tbsp chopped dill
3tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
100g/3½oz feta cheese
freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
10 sheets filo/phyllo pastry
100g/3½oz/scant 1stick butter
Sesame seeds, to decorate
1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas 4. Fry the onion in a large saucepan with 1tbsp of the oil. Once translucent, tip in the spinach and stir constantly while it defrosts. Cook over a relatively high heat, to try and encourage some of the water to evaporate.
2. Tip the spinach and onion into a sieve, and squelch them around with your hand, squeezing out as much of the water as you can. The more you can remove here, the crisper your pastry will be. Leave to cool.
3. Once cool, add the chopped herbs, egg, and crumble in the feta. Grate in some nutmeg and add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Lay two sheets of filo on your work surface, with their longest edges parallel to where you are standing, and overlapping by a couple of centimeters/about ¾in. Brush generously with butter. Add two more sheets on top, butter again and repeat until all the filo is used up. Lay a long line of filling about 5cm/2in from the long edge of pastry closest to you. Roll the pastry up into one long sausage. Coil it into a spiral.
5. Transfer the spanakopita to a lined baking sheet, brush generously with butter, sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 25 minutes until golden brown.
‘I think it might be time to see to that casserole,’ I said, getting up. ‘It’s just on half past seven.’
It turned out to be a very nice bird and I am sure that even William’s could not have been better.
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
I didn’t imagine I’d be single at thirty. Growing up, I assumed that by this age I would have a partner, and children would be just around the corner. I didn’t think I’d be glancing around at a series of friend’s weddings, noticing that I was one of the only ones there without a plus one.
So the discovery of Mildred, the titular ‘excellent woman’ of this book, came as a breath of fresh air. It is used (condescendingly) in the book to describe the sort of unmarried woman who is useful to have around when planning church rummage sales and the Christmas bazaar. Though she is undoubtedly good at those things, Mildred is really rather excellent in other ways too – wonderfully dry, witty and heart-breakingly honest. I read the book with a nod of recognition: the lunches and dinners for one, the inevitability of being the spare at a dinner of couples, the freedom of being beholden only to oneself, and the challenges that come with that too. I found, in Mildred, a woman I recognized.
This casserole is a good option when you have a few friends coming around for dinner. It requires very little of your attention once you transfer it from the worktop into the oven; just leave it to bubble away while you and your guests crack open a bottle of wine. It is a perfect one-pot supper, easy enough even if you’re not an enthusiastic cook. Do feel free to serve it with some buttered spinach and roasted new potatoes if you like, but I actually prefer it with a big loaf of crusty bread.
Mildred eats this chicken casserole with Everard, the anthropologist she eventually marries. Though his housekeeper prepares it, not him, my recipe below draws inspiration from Engagement Chicken, a dish that has an almost cult-like following in the US after it was published with an extraordinary caveat that it can lead to a proposal. It is, however, equally delicious made for one. If you are eating alone, do what I do; halve the ingredients, replace the whole chicken with four small thighs, and take the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Whole chicken (around 1.5kg/3¼lb in weight)
2 brown onions, finely sliced
2 stalks celery, finely sliced
1 leek, finely sliced
2 carrots, finely sliced
2tbsp plain/all-purpose flour
125ml/4floz/½cup white wine
2 lemons, sliced into thick rounds
4 cloves garlic, left whole, crushed with a knife
Cracked black pepper and coarse sea salt
20 sprigs thyme
125ml/4floz/½cup chicken stock
Large, heavy-based frying pan
Large casserole dish (or a roasting tray that fits all pieces of your chicken snugly)
1. Joint your chicken into eight pieces: drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts. If you have never done this before, you can ask your butcher to do it for you. But if you do want to give it a go yourself, it’s not as tricky as it sounds! Ensure your chicken is at room temperature, and place it on its back, with the legs towards you. Open the legs wide, and find the joint that connects the thigh to the body. With a sharp knife, cut through this joint, and the skin that surrounds it. Take the leg, and find the joint between the drumstick and thigh. Make another cut, straight through this. Repeat on the other leg. Turn the chicken over and find where the wing meets the body. Cut straight through this joint on both sides. Finally, turn the chicken breast-side up, find the middle of the breast, and slice through it. I like leaving some of the ribs under the breast for this dish, but you can either slice the breast away from the bones, or slice right through the bones at the side. Dry the chicken with some kitchen paper.
2. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas 6. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Once it is foaming, add the chicken pieces, skin side down. If they won’t fit in one layer, with some space between each piece, then cook in batches. Remove and set aside.
3. Melt the butter and fry the onions, celery, leek, and carrots for around 5 minutes, until they are starting to soften. Stir in the flour, and cook for two minutes. Add the wine and cook for another minute. Tip the vegetables and wine into a casserole dish, then add the lemon slices, garlic, salt, pepper, and thyme. Pour in the stock, then nestle the chicken, skin side up, in amongst the liquid. Cover and transfer to the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and roast for a further 5 minutes, or until the juices that escape a pierced thigh run clean. Serve the chicken with the vegetables and a generous spoonful of the juices that sit underneath it.
A note: You will have a lovely uncooked carcass left over after Step 1. Do boil this up with some carrots, onion, celery, peppercorns and bay leaves. It will make delicious stock; lighter than one made from a leftover roasted carcass.
The Little Library Cookbook is published in October.